the Yucatan & Casa Hamaca
The Wrinkles of Fate & Learning to Eat Soup Without A Spoon 
I’ve been reading Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatan, Vol. II by John L. Stephens. It was originally published in 1841 and is his account of his journeys, mostly on horseback, through Central America and the Mayan lands of Mexico. Boy, do we have it easy nowadays! As travelers, most of us never really leave the comforts of home. We quickly fly to our destinations, take an air-conditioned taxi or shuttle bus to our hotel (some of us never even leave the hotel grounds while in a foreign land), have plenty to eat and drink, a clean and secure place to sleep, can bathe with clean water, never worry about revolution or volcanoes or fording raging mountain rivers on horseback, etc., etc., etc.

Every morning, I get up early and sit on the veranda drinking a cup of coffee and watching the world come alive. The hummingbirds and butterflies and honeybees visiting the flowers for breakfast. The school kids in their uniforms making their way to the school down the block. The birds greeting the dawn with song. And the roosters joining them, just to make sure everyone and everything is awake. The tiny newspaper truck that speeds around the square delivering the daily paper to the vendor in the park. Once I am satisfied that the world is up and going about its business, I read for a while before starting my workday. Today Stephens wrote about crossing from what is now El Salvador into Guatemala, finessing his way through opposing sides of a bloody revolution and cross-border civil war strife. Throughout his travels, he was able to stop at almost any hacienda and be offered hospitality, even from perfect strangers, with food and drink and a place to sleep. This is quite a concept in our day and age, with the thousands of travelers that make their way even to remote places. Stephens was welcomed at a hacienda near the border and, as he writes “We had a supper at a small table placed between the hammocks and one of the beds, consisting of fried eggs, frigoles (sic) and tortillas, as usual without knife, fork, or spoon.”

As I read that, I flashed back to the beginning of this year on New Years Day. My wife, Nena, had been looking in Valladolid for a church that suited her. She tried a few different ones and was disappointed not to find one that appealed to her. We had started going for drives when we had some downtime, each time in a different direction. We wanted to see and explore and experience what the small villages were all about. On New Years Day, we were passing through Chichimilla, a small village south of Valladolid, going slowly because of the topes (speed bumps) and with our windows down, when Nena’s ears perked up. She heard her kind of church music! We looked to the left and saw a small group of people near the side of the road having some kind of service. I turned the car around as soon as possible and slowly approached the group of people, intending just to listen to the music for a short time. Before we could come to a complete stop, both of our front windows had people leaning in and inviting us to join them in their service.

As we got out of the car, other people scurried to bring us rickety, folding wooden chairs to sit on. Others moved to the side to make room for us. The pastor acknowledged us and welcomed us. As I looked around at, perhaps, fifty adults gathered in an open yard, next to a house, I saw mostly women, a few men and lots of children. Many of the women were dressed in huipiles (the traditional Mayan dress). The men wore long pants and short-sleeved shirts along with their straw hats to ward off the sun. Almost all were Mayan, I surmised, by their look and by the mixture of Spanish and Mayan the pastor spoke. A very traditional, typical and conservative Mayan village. Not one necktie to be seen, not one gringo except me…and I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt. The pastor was speaking in front of a small table that was between two enormous loudspeakers, each at least 4 feet high, that looked like they would be more at home at a night club than in a church service.

When the pastor was about to read a passage from the Bible, he asked me if I would like to do the reading for the congregation. I shook my head, “No”, since I don’t read much Spanish. When he asked Nena if she would like to, she jumped at the chance. Someone handed her a worn Bible, and she read aloud the chosen verses. This was repeated at least four more times during the service with Nena stepping to the front of the congregation to read aloud the indicated passages.

As the service ended, the pastor invited us to share a meal with them. The Mexican version of a church supper. After the service ended, others repeated the invitation until we felt they really meant the invitation. So, we decided to join them. As we chatted, we explained that we sometimes did mission work in the Yucatan with Mano Amiga constructing concrete roofs for the poor and needy. We were told to go to the house next door for our meal. Following the example of the others, we took our chairs with us and entered. A long table filled the entire room. We were directed to sit. A pitcher of horchata (a cold, sweet beverage made from rice milk) was placed in front of us along with plastic cups. Since the horchata had ice in it and because the horchata was made using water, I declined the drink. I get nervous about ice and water whose origins I do not know.

We were each served a bowl filled with a black liquid surrounding islands of chilies and pieces of turkey…Relleno Negro, a traditional festive dish throughout the Yucatan. It looked delicious; it smelled delicious. I was ready to dig on. But they had not yet brought out the spoons. So I waited, and waited and waited. Until I realized that we were not going to be served spoons. We were supposed to eat the soup using tortillas from one of the stacks of tortillas that had been placed along the table. I watched others to see how this was done and then joined in. I tore off a quarter of the tortilla, formed it into a scoop for the broth or used it to grab a piece of the turkey or a chili and carry it to my mouth without out getting my hands in the soup. It was tricky, but tasty.

I finished my bowl but declined a second serving. As we gathering ourselves to leave, it seemed dozens of people thanked us for joining them and invited us to their regular service at the church. This service had been just a special, open-air service to celebrate the New Year. They gave us directions and times and were so earnest in their invitations that I was touched. A stranger, and a gringo at that, should be made to feel so welcome. It humbled me.

Nena has since found a church in Valladolid in which she feels comfortable and attends on a regular basis. Last night, Nena asked if I would like to join her at a special service they were having to dedicate their new building. It was a blowout occasion. Pastors and their flocks came from a far away as Tizimin, an hour north. Individual pastors came from Merida and Guadalajara (almost at the other end of the country). And the pastor delivering the sermon came from Indiana. It was quite something to listen to the pastor from Indiana preach, one sentence at a time in English, pause while the sentence was translated into Spanish with appropriate gestures and inflections. He was a powerful and dynamic speaker…and his translator (another gringo) followed suit.

It was my first time at this church and I was greeted and welcomed by numerous people. We were seated in the front row, in stacking plastic chairs stenciled with the Pepsi logo. The church was overflowing with people and many had to stand near the back of the building throughout the service, which lasted almost two hours. At the end of the service, we were all invited to take our chairs with us and pass out to the side yard and join them in a meal.

Very different from the other church meal that we were served! First an individual, unopened bottle of cold soda (soda pop) then a tiny paper napkin then a foam plastic plate with four tacos. Some of the tacos were filled with cochinita pibil (pork rubbed with herbs and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in an earthen pit until moist, tender and flavorful), some with lechon al horno (roast suckling pig). Both were delicious. I can never decide which I like more. The cochinita or the lechon.

As were making our way through the crowd, out to the street to leave, someone shouted out “Mano Amiga.”We looked and there were a dozen of people from Chichimilla that we had met on the first of the year. They remembered us and remembered Mano Amiga and greeted us like long-lost brothers. And invited us again to join them. Again, I was touched.

When we returned home and fell into hammocks, I reflected on the hospitality of the Mayan people. The openness and friendliness that they demonstrated to us. I was overwhelmed. I imagined a Mexican stranger, dressed differently, speaking a different language and having a different skin color, arriving at almost any gathering in the United States and wondered how he would be received.

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The Sounds of Yucatec Maya  
I's not really going to write about this, I'm going to let you hear it and see it at a YouTube video. Yucatec Maya is one of somewhere between 24 and 34 living Mayan languages. Languages, scholars say, and not just dialects. Yucatec Maya is still spoken by about one and one half million people and its geographic range is the largest of the Maya tongues. I believe this is because the Yucatan is so flat with no great barriers to travel and commerce. Other Maya languages are spoken in very tiny regions in Chiapas and the highlands of Guatemala where mountans seperate people enough that distinctive languages develop in various valleys.

The older woman is Paula. Her husband, Felipe, brought Paula to me for a massage since she hurt herself falling out of a hammock (no idea what she was doing in that hammock!) and hurting her shoulder. Felipe is the honey seller that I previously wrote about. Since he also provides massage, I guess that he liked my treatment enough to bring his wife. The massage treatment became almost comical as I attempted to say something to her in Spanish and she just did not understand me. She speaks much less Spanish than I do. Felipe, who speaks some Spanish, attempted to translate for us without much success. So I called in Sofia, our housekeeper, who does speak quite a bit of Spanish to translate. That's Sofia in the obscure frames. In the background, you can see some of the new mural for one of the guest suites. I'm currently using that room for massage therapy since the room I plan to use for massage doesn't yet have all its windows.

In the video you will hear an occasional Spanish work used where there is no Mayan word for the concept. I found out today that there is a Mayan word for grandmother chiich, but both ladies in this video (from different Mayan villages) used the same Spanish word for grandfather, Señor. Not abuelo which is Spanish for grandfather nor nohoch taat (what the dictionary lists as grandfather in Mayan, nor mam which is the dictionary translation for aged grandfather. Señor is a term of respect that may go beyond the other words in both Mayan and Spanish. ¿Quien sabe?

Here's the link to the YouTube video:YouTube. If that doesn't work for some reason, cut and paste the following URL:

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Building a Swimming Pool.Part I: "Don’t need no stinkin’ permit.”  
When I first decided that I needed to put in a swimming pool so that people could get a real YucaTan, I started looking around my property to find a suitable location. Since all of the northern part of the Yucatan is a more or less flat limestone shelf with a thin layer of dirt over it, most of the places that I looked were either exposed bedrock or rock with a little dirt over it. There was no easy way to excavate for a pool. And I did not want an above ground one.

A friend pointed out an interesting location with lots of sun, near the house and at least three feet (91 cm) higher than most of the grounds with a natural slope. I knew that some of the material was fill but needed to know where the bedrock was and how it sloped. I hired a couple of workers to determine how far down was bedrock and the extent of it. I figured that even with a natural bedrock slope, it would work out so that I could have a shallow end and a deep end. One end of the proposed site had a deep pocket of rich topsoil along with the large tree roots that had found this wonderful supply of nutrients. The workers chopped with axes as much as they worked with shovels. There was no way that any machine was going to get to the site to aid excavation, so the workers carried on with pick and shovel and axe.

As they cleared a portion of the bedrock, a vertical hole about 18 inches (45 cm) in diameter was uncovered. That was exciting since the area is honeycombed with caves, caverns and underground cenotes. Maybe this was an entrance! Further digging found the bottom of the hole to be about 4 feet (122 cm) down, but there was at least one side “tunnel” horizontal to the main shaft. It was full of topsoil and more tree roots that had entered some distance away and followed the topsoil. We filled in the hole with small rocks and gravel.

At this point, I had a tentative plan for the pool. A small rectangular pool with three levels: kiddy level, waist high level and a deeper end. I had no interest in a diving area nor did I have the room to make a lap pool. The natural rock slope suggested these three levels. But there was one hitch; the kiddy level was neither level nor was it large enough in area. It had a number of humps and bumps that were just too high. So the workers attempted to level the area (and expand it a bit as well) using hammers and crowbars. It was slow, brutal and tedious work with little result.

My foreman suggested we bring in the bombero…the guy who uses dynamite to level, to excavate and to break up rock. With some trepidation, I said, “Bring him in”. He and his helper showed up on a Saturday while I was feeding about 20 people on the veranda. This was to be the day’s entertainment. The bombero and his assistant used the same type of crowbars to make vertical holes in the rock. The holes were less than 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter and were up to 12 inches (30 cm) deep. They bored five or six holes in a matter of minutes. They had obviously done this before. While the boss went to purchase blasting powder, his assistant rolled in a number of large truck tires as well as a few normal sized automobile tires along with a long length of heavy-duty rope.

The bombero came back with a little plastic bag; I had expected a wooden box of sticks of dynamite along with a plunger to set off the dynamite. Not so! He had a small coil of fuse, a small bag of granular material that looked like fertilizer to and a second, smaller bag of blasting caps.

The bombero cleaned out the bottom of the first hole with a small stick that he found lying around. He poured in some of the granular material, measuring by eye and experience and then gently tamped it down with the stick. He uncoiled the fuse and cut off a length, again measuring by eye and experience. This is when he scared the hell out of me. He cramped the blasting cap onto one end of the fuse with his teeth. I have some experience with cap-lock firearms and know that the stability of these kinds of caps is even less than those paper rolls of caps that we used to shoot as kids. It does not take a lot to make them go bang. If he had bitten down incorrectly, he would have lost at least some teeth and part of his jaw, if not his entire head. He seemed unconcerned and after cramping the cap on the fuse, wiggled it into the granular powder, filled the hole with dirt and gently tamped it down as well.

Then he and his assistant started piling the heavy truck-tires over the hole, stacked one on top of the other, looping the stout rope through tires as they went. When they were stacked about four high, the smaller automobile tires were jammed perpendicularly into the larger tire opening. These tires were then lashed to the heavier ones. The end of the rope was tied to one of the natural stone columns that supported the veranda of Casa Hamaca. At this point I asked what the tires and the rope were for. The tires were to help contain the blast and the rock shards that shot out. The tires were tied to the house so that they would remain in my yard and not be blown over into my neighbors. Okayyyy.

Without any prior warning, the bombero struck a match, lit the fuse and started casually walking away, saying in an almost conversational voice “Bomba. Bomba”. This was the warning the explosion was about to go off. In the USA, we might have heard “Fire in the hole” along with sirens and other early warnings. But not here. After what seemed like a long wait with nothing happening, there was a puff of smoke followed by a mighty explosion that shook the entire house. The tires flew up in the air to the length of their tether and slammed back to earth. The bombero and his assistant, calmly strolled back to the site, untied the tires and proceeded to fill the next hole with the granular blasting powder. Watch the BANG on YouTube.

No neighbor looked over the wall to see what was happening, no alarms were raised, no one seemed to care that we were blasting in the middle of town. Before we started, I had asked the bombero if we needed a permit. His reply was, more or less, “We don’t need no stinkin’ permit.” In the days after this experience, I could hear explosions, coming from all directions, almost every day, as other people blasted rock for footings, foundations, wells, pools and septic tanks. Everybody seemed to do it. I was told that a permit was necessary near downtown where there were heavier concentrations of people and the buildings were closer together. There are so many fireworks in Valladolid on so many different occasions, that maybe no one notices a few more explosions.

The bombero and his assistant shot about ten holes that afternoon providing entertainment for the lunch crowd. The bombero was precise with his measuring, adding just enough powder to level a particular area. His costs were minimal; $100 New Pesos (or less than US$10.00) per shot.

I thought this would be it for the excavation for the pool. Other costs and needs came up and the pool construction was put off for a few weeks. And when we started again, clearing down to bedrock for the rock wall, we uncovered another vertical hole, this one about 6 feet (183 cm) in diameter. The depth was not great enough to lead to a cave, cavern or cenote; but was great enough to stop construction while we worked out the plans to incorporate the hole into the overall design and transform it into a whirlpool or spa. And that is where we are now. By this time next week, we should be leveling the pool bottom with sand, adding the plumbing, laying steel rebar and getting ready to pour the pool floor and walls in a single pour. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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How to Make Aluxob (Mayan Leprechauns) 
Alux are leprechaun-like beings who guard the fields (milpas) of the Mayan farmers. An alux (plural: aluxob in Mayan or aluxes in Spanish) is supposed to be about knee-high. Now I'm not sure if that is knee-high to a Mayan or knee-high to a gringo since the Mayan people are generally much shorter than are gringos...but they are quite small. In any case, they pretty much stay out of sight, calling attention to themselves with pebble throwing in the night or whistling in the dark or playing pranks on passers-by. Any strange noise or strange sounds in the night are blamed on the aluxob. They are more or less harmless, just mischievous. But don't cross them or they will get even.

Farmers sometimes build a little hut in their fields for the alux to live in. Legend has it that as long as the farmer treats the alux right by giving him food and drink, the alux will guard the fields from both humans and animals. However, at the end of seven years, the farmer is supposed to close the hut door on the alux, trapping him inside. I'm not quite sure what happens then...if the farmer starts again with another alux or what.
Some think that belief in alux was imported into the Yucatan by English pirates, many of whom believed in faries. Others think that they are the living embodiment of the little clay figures sometimes found among the ruins.

Every village Mayan with whom I have talked, without exception, believes in aluxob. Everyone has a father, an uncle or a cousin who has actually seem an alux. Some have had close encounters with aluxob. Some people seem a little embarassed at believing in the aluxob, but they do believe. Now-a-days, alux also guard the casas, tiendas (stores) and even automobiles of the Mayan people.

A few years ago, I spent three days in the Yucatan jungle with a local guide. I don't think he was a shaman, but he had much experience in many things Mayan. We had many opportunities to talk about a variety of subjects during our breaks (we were photographing 70 different plants that had some importance to the village Mayas). On one of our breaks, he taught me how to make an alux and bring it to life. He did not swear me to secrecy so I will share what he told me. First make a clay figure of a person...a body with a head, two arms and two legs...the figure did not have to be very life-like. Size was not specified. I kind of picured the clay alux to be about the size and the general form of a gingerbread man. Then, with a small wood stick, make five holes in the alux...not all the way through the figure...just partial holes. Make them at the major joints (ie: the hips and the shoulders) and at the bellybutton. Let the clay harden, but don't fire it. When it is dry, wash it in a posole liquid...made from ground homminy and water. As you wash the alux say the words "xxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx". I could say I forgot the words, but that is not true. As I was about to write the words to give life to an alux, I had second thoughts and decided not to share that knowlege over the internet. If you want to learn how to do it, come stay at the Casa Hamaca and learn with hands-on experience. But don't let Nena know. She does not believe in aluxob, but she still seems frightened of them. Go figure. Anyway, here a schematic.

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Why Valladolid? 
Over 10 years ago, I started doing mission work in the Yucatan with Mano Amiga. The 1st year I went once, the 2nd yr. twice, etc., until I was going to the Yucatan 3 or 4 or 5 times a year. Many times we stopped in Valladolid for lunch on our way across the peninsula from Cancun to a small village near Merida. The town was always very tranquil with sort of a slow-bustle about the downtown area. Very authentic with many of the women wearing traditional Mayan dresses (huipiles), very traditional and very charming. I heard as much Maya spoken as I heard Spanish.
A few years ago, I took a two week driving trip with a Mexican family to the five Mayan states (sometimes known as the Republic of Yucatan)...Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tobasco, Chiapas and Yucatan. A number of the hotels in which we stayed as well as a number of the restaurants we visited were old Spanish colonials built around a center courtyard...a concept that flouished in Spain for 1,000 years during the Moorish conquest. I really liked the idea of having my morning coffee in an open courtyard surrounded by plants, flowers and birds.
So I decided to start looking for a house in old colonial cities. Since my base was Isla Mujeres, near Cancun, I drew up a list of prospective cities, the closest one first, to begin my search. I planned to look in Valladolid, Izamal, Merida, Campeche and San Cristobal de las Casas in that order (all Mayan cities, by the way). The third weekend that I looked in Valladolid, I found the house I now live in and fell in love with it. The house is probably less that 50 years old, but it did have a center courtyard. And it was located in the heart of the historic district, fronting on a small square acros from the San Juan church. The church is probably from the 16th or 17 one seems to know for sure since many of the early records have been lost. The square reminds me of a square in Provence in the south of France. The casa was surrounded with fruit trees, flowers and flowering shrubs.
After some dickering, we agreed upon a price and I bought it and immediately started renovations. My first major order of business was to remove the roof surrounding the courtyard and the main was way too low. All of the surrounding rooms were close to 3 meters high (9 ft+) but the existing hallway roof was only about 7 ft high.. My idea was also to enlarge the courtyard since I had to build the new roof anyway. After a few rainstorms, I realized that the interior of the casa received too much water. Then came the decision to add a second story. There was still too much water entry when it rained! So, instead of an open courtyard, I now have a closed atrium, almost three stories high. It is a great, open space with lots of light. But I have my morning coffee on the wrap-around veranda, overlooking the gardens and the San Juan Square in front of the casa. A wonderful location to watch the hummingbirds visit the flowers and the children appear for the 7 AM opening of the school also located on the park.
The casa setting is almost unique in Valladolid (or for the entire Yucatan, for that matter) because in the billard table-flatness of the Yucatan, the casa sits on an exposed limestone crest, much higher than any of the land around it. This not only creates a great view, it also affords great drainage when the tropical rains come. I recently learned, because of the unique location, a Mayan structure may have been located here before the Spanish came in 1542. The city was then called Zaci and has been inhabited for, perhaps, thousands of years since at least two major water sources (cenotes) are here...a very important feature of most old Mayan cities. I also heard that there might be an entrance to a cave, cavern or underground lake (cenote) on the property. Since the entire region is honeycombed with caves, caverns and inter-connected cenotoes in the limestone bedrock, that is not impossible to believe. Then the story got a little far-fetched when the hidden treasure was mentioned. But, who knows?
Everywhere I look in the garden soil, I encounter broken sherds of clay pottery. I have no idea if the sherds are 10 years old or 1,000 years old. I do know that the former owners of the casa used the gardens for their rubbish so at least some of the sherds are quite new. I'll write more later about the plants in the garden, the wildlife and the guardians of the property...the alux...leprechaun-like beings who guard the fields...and, also, sometimes cause a little mischief.

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